An overlooked part of Irish history

The Troubles have produced a vast library but it is amazing that this is the first major history of an overlooked but influential movement: the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. This history of the “Sticks” is a labour of love that took five years and draws on many interviews and official archives, so to speak.

It convincingly and readably narrates the fascinating story of a movement that journeyed over three bloody decades from the priority of forcibly removing the border and uniting Ireland to abandoning armed struggle and opposing terrorism but never decommissioning its arms.

They also moved from opposing “the Communist menace” to embracing class politics with a distinct Stalinist tinge – their bookshops held the Irish franchise for Soviet literature and the Soviet Communist Party granted WP members free health treatment in the USSR. The Irish security services believed the Sticks were “the greatest long-term danger to the security of the institutions of the State” in the early 1970s as opposed to the Provos who then favoured a free Ireland based on Christian principles. Irish establishment politicians worried about the Sticks’ organised infiltration of the trade unions, the student movement and a savvy media operation.

The authors, Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, academic and journalist respectively, write that the WP played “a large part in the death of irredentist ideology in the south” and “served as the training ground for much of the leadership of the present-day Labour Party and trade unions in the South. The revolution it struggled for, through violence and political activism, never took place; but the struggle shaped modern Ireland.”

The history is tainted by its military wing – the Official IRA (OIRA) which went from opposing the B Specials to what became known internally as Group B and whose nefarious “special activities” were justified by a “revolutionary morality.”

It is packed with anecdotes and vignettes which bring a sometimes bohemian cast of characters to life in all their camaraderie, passion and bitterness. It’s a rich and riveting resource.

I declare a personal interest. As a British political activist, I worked with WP and Democratic Left members in the 1980s and 1990s. From this, I can say that the book fails adequately to describe the WP’s influence on the British labour movement.

The Bennite upsurge in the early 1980s strengthened the Troops Out Movement which often forced an annual conference debate, aptly televised when Playtime replaced live broadcasting. In 1985, the year that Neil Kinnock turned on the entryist Trotskyist group, the Militant, the Sticks themselves entered the fray at Labour’s annual conference. Signs appeared on lampposts throughout Bournemouth announcing daily Irish Social Nights and inviting people to come for the “craic” – a new term in Britain then, which caused some consternation.

I attended these for more years than I care to remember. Typically, songs such as “the Patriot Game” would be partnered with socialist songs and support for the striking miners, plus much drinking. This activity did much to convey the complexities of Northern Ireland and undercut the claims of Sinn Fein to an exclusive franchise with the British left.

These WP events weren’t explicitly political but clearly influenced some policy-makers. It helps explain why more on the British left became neutral on the national question, which helped Labour to conclude the Belfast Agreement.

I also worked with WP members and others in a British-Irish and cross-party group called New Consensus. The authors incorrectly allege that New Consensus took British State funding but promptly gave me an unreserved apology.

Yet it is impossible to ignore the dark side of the Sticks. The gulf between public claims and private realities justified the charge of hypocrisy, as former northern leader Seamus Lynch admits here.

In the end, the Sticks had to split. It was increasingly untenable to maintain a Leninist regime, once the communist bloc had imploded, and impossible to maintain electoral credibility with a “little secret army” that everyone knew about.

WP parliamentarians led moves to reconstitute the party without vestiges of Stalinism and republicanism – “the age of heroes is dead and gone,” as party president Proinsias de Rossa put it. These “intelligent revisionists” very narrowly lost and formed the Democratic Left which finally merged with the Irish Labour Party.

The authors note that the Provos now airbrush OIRA out of history and quote an IRA lifer and writer, Anthony McIntyre who concedes that “they beat us to it – and started the peace process first.” The Belfast joke is: what’s the difference between the Provos and the Sticks? Answer: 25 years. For many the Sticks are the Marmite of Irish politics – you either love them or loathe them but their politics made a difference, north and south as well as in Britain.

The book needs more substantial analysis of the intellectual journey from Catholic nationalism to a Marxist two-nations theory. A few key speeches and articles should have been included for the reader to judge the development of political ideas for themselves. The footnotes are confusing and the index isn’t inclusive.

It’s difficult to keep the general reader interested in the rhythms of a politico-military movement – paper sales, robbery proceeds, funeral attendances, casualties, tit-for-tat murders, the characters, splits and intrigues – but this long overdue and enjoyable history of the Sticks does.

The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party
Brian Hanley and Scott Millar
Penguin £20